It's a long-standing convention in Australian politics for governments not to comment on intelligence operations, for three reasons.

First, because it might put those operations (and potentially the lives of Australian intelligence officers) in danger. That's the official (and legitimate) reason, though politicians sometimes have a second motive: they use the convention as an excuse to avoid scrutiny or shut down debate.

The third reason is that it allows governments to avoid awkward questions that could embarrass them in the eyes of a foreign government. So even though it's an open secret that Australia spies on Indonesia, we never confirm it. That's why, during the current controversy over Australian eavesdropping in Jakarta, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has repeatedly told journalists that 'The Australian government does not, as a matter of principle, comment on intelligence matters.'

It's not clear why Prime Minister Abbott chose to put aside that principle during his 7.30 interview last night. Perhaps he hasn't yet unlearnt the habits of an opposition leader, whose job is to never miss an opportunity to have a dig at the other side. Abbott quickly realised his mistake but his retreat was less than elegant. The transcript is below, though you only get the full force of the awkwardness by watching it (video now embedded above). Interviewer Leigh Sales begins by charging that Indonesia relations have worsened under Abbott's government:

LEIGH SALES: But you've got the spying, you've got the boat controversies.

TONY ABBOTT: Yes, and when did this so-called spying take place, Leigh?

LEIGH SALES: Well so the spying does take place?

TONY ABBOTT: When did this so-called spying allegedly take place?

LEIGH SALES: Well nobody's confirmed that it actually takes place, so do we spy on Indonesia?

TONY ABBOTT: Leigh, please, please, we don't comment on operational matters, but there have been reports in the press, and based on reports in the press, when did this so-called spying allegedly take place? Would you like to tell me?

LEIGH SALES: You tell me; you're the Prime Minister.

TONY ABBOTT: Under the former government.

LEIGH SALES: You're the Prime Minister.

TONY ABBOTT: Under the former government.

LEIGH SALES: Does it carry on now and did it not occur also under the Howard Government?

TONY ABBOTT: Leigh, all countries, all governments gather information. That's hardly a surprise. It's hardly a shock. We use the information that we gather for good, including to build a stronger relationship with Indonesia. And one of the things that I've offered to do today in my discussions with the Indonesian Vice President is to elevate our level of information sharing, because I want the people of Indonesia to know that everything, everything that we do is to help Indonesia as well as to help Australia. Indonesia is a country for which I have a great deal of respect and personal affection based on my own time in Indonesia. I want nothing, but the best for Indonesia, and I certainly want, Leigh, I certainly want the boats stopped and that is overwhelmingly in the interests of both our countries.